Are you one of those parents who posts an endless stream of toddler meltdown photos, blogs about your teen’s milestones or tweets endlessly about the daily minutiae of your children’s lives? If so, you’re not alone. A recent study of U.S. parents noted that about two-thirds of mothers use Facebook and, of these, 97 percent have posted pictures of their children. Around 89 percent have posted status updates regarding children, and a whopping 43 percent posted videos. Around half of these parents have even shared more personal details such as special occasions or family trip information. It’s apparent that technology is making an impact on the way parents share information about their children. Today’s generation of parents is made up of people who’ve grown up with technology and are at ease sharing information in an online community. But we have yet to see the full impact this sharing has on the children whose young lives are being played out on an international medium—the internet.
Children no longer enjoy the protections of an anonymous childhood. The “seen and not heard” child of yesteryear has morphed into a modern celebrity, with 90 percent of American children possessing an online history by the time they turn two. Besides the social ramifications of growing up immersed in the internet, there is another, darker issue lurking beneath the surface of seemingly innocuous online sharing. Every bit of data about your child contributes to a profile of him or her that can have long-term consequences for that child as an adult. Big data companies collect information regularly and glean what they can from social media postings, blogs, and other online venues to get a picture of a child’s likes, dislikes, habits and more. As these children grow older and become willing participants in their online biography, the data that companies can access becomes more refined. By age five, half of these children are regular users of computers or tablets and by the time they’re eight, most children have cell phones and have plugged into the world of video games. Because they’ve grown up seeing parents share intimate details of their personal lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs, they have no reason to think in terms of protecting their information. Their parents have modeled for them a cavalier attitude toward internet privacy.
And a cavalier attitude is a dangerous thing to have online. A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) study took a look at fifty popular children’s websites and found they have 30 percent more tracking tools installed than relevant adult websites. In fact, the group as a whole used a total of 4,123 pieces of tracking technology. One site alone installed upwards of 240 tracking tools, mostly from advertisers on the site. This information is gathered and used to build profiles that can include location, race, age, hobbies, and more. Compiling and selling this type of data is legal, but contentious when minors are involved. Two companies were identified by the WSJ as selling data on teens, although they initially denied doing so. With the influence of children tied to billions of dollars in annual family spending, there is a strong impetus from advertisers to develop profiles of online shopping habits of children.
There is also the danger of predators and identity thieves getting a hold of your child’s information. Tony Anscombe, of the internet security firm AVG, predicts identity theft will be on the rise as we increase the amount of information we share about our kids online. He notes that there have already been reports of teens in the U.S. going to apply for a driver’s license only to find that someone has already used their identity for that purpose.
People who share information about kids should learn to share responsibly in order to keep both predators and thieves at bay. Some examples of good ways to protect your child’s identity are:
- Don’t give identifying physical characteristics such as birthmarks, birth defects, physical or mental issues or even height and weight.
- Don’t give genealogical details out. Often mothers’ maiden names or some combination of ancestral names are used for access to password-protected sites. Yes, your genealogy is probably a matter of public record, but don’t make it easy.
- Don’t ever publish a child’s full name, birth date or Social Security information online or in an email.
- Don’t ever tag a child in a geographic location.
Unfortunately, there are many cases where parents can’t seem to be good advocates for their children, so the government has stepped in to help—but not too much. Currently, there is a single federal law that limits the type of data that can be collected about kids, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA. Since its inception in 1998, this law requires that sites directed at children under the age of 13, as well as general audience sites, must obtain parental permission before collecting, selling or divulging the personal information of a minor. A child’s personal information includes names, home addresses, email addresses, phone and Social Security numbers.
Some sites try to avoid COPPA requirements by prohibiting children under 13 from viewing the site, but this is often a false failsafe as many children simply fib about their ages to gain access. There is another bill on the horizon, the Do Not Track Kids Act, a bipartisan effort that aims to protect children from data mining operations, which was recently reintroduced to Congress. The only state legislation regarding this issue is provided in California, where Senate Bill 568 was signed into law in 2013. This law provides children under 18 with an “eraser button” that lets them delete information and posts that they regret. The problem is that it doesn’t allow them to remove posts added by a third party, such as a friend or parent. And that’s the key to the larger problem: Companies may still collect information on children that parents are releasing through social media sharing sites.
As adults, we are responsible for many of the decisions in our children’s lives until they reach 18, the age of consent. Until then, they must have an adult’s permission to do many things in their young lives. This type of supervision is essential, since minor children do not have the maturity and life experience necessary to make long-term decisions that may affect the rest of their lives. Parents who tell reams of stories online about the children’s successes and failures; share their behavioral or physical quirks; or publish thoughts about their children are making the choice to share that information on behalf of their child. While it may seem harmless to post a photo of your three-year-old in the bathtub, it may be drawing the attention of predators. Combined with the tagging and geolocation abilities of most social media software, your sharing could be making your child more accessible to identity thieves, data profilers, and criminals.
Some information is just embarrassing. For instance, little Johnny might not care if you publish that he picks his nose and eats it when he’s two. It might be a different story when his college roommate digs that information up in a Google search 17 years later, making him the focus of jokes and bullying. Parents who blog about their troubled teen’s behavior may be setting them up for difficulty when prospective employers discover information regarding their marijuana habit online years later. Adverse online information can affect entry into colleges and universities, wreak havoc with relationships and, as mentioned, skew a potential employer’s opinion. If internet posts were ephemeral and removed within a short period, it probably wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, in today’s current environment, posts, pictures, and videos are available online for an indeterminate amount of time. Kids will have to deal with the consequences of their parents’ online sharing for the rest of their lives.
Aside from privacy, there is a second matter that children of online “over-sharents” face: The psychological bruising that comes from hearing yourself maligned or made fun of by your parents.
One blogging dad, Buzz Bishop, wrote a blog post where he discussed having a favorite child. How would you feel if you discovered, years into adulthood or worse yet, as a teenager, that you were not your parent’s favorite? It could cause you to re-evaluate your entire relationship with them. It could cause you to see certain childhood events in a new light. It could break your heart. Mr. Bishop defends his behavior, saying that his article “rings true” for many parents, and, since it is real life, we should be able to converse about it. While he may be correct, there is probably a pretty good reason why most parents don’t discuss it—they don’t want to crush the spirits of their “non favorite” offspring. Who would?
Emma Beddington, the blogger behind belgianwaffling.com says that she tries to avoid writing anything about her children that would have mortified her growing up. I am not sure that any parent can know this. I have three children that are very individual when it comes to things that bother them. How can Ms. Beddington possibly predict what will bother her kids at a later date? And for what purpose would she share her kids’ antics online? So that she can achieve notoriety for herself through her child-centered commentary?
In the end, as adults we are called to be protectors of our children. We should strive to preserve that which they may not be capable of safeguarding on their own; their identities, their personal safety and even their self-esteem. When we expose our children to the internet, even in a well-meaning way, we must consider the effects this information may have on their lives, present and future. We are presenting them, not just to a few well-meaning friends or family members, but to an entire world that may be eager and ready to take advantage of them. We must not rely on our government to do our job for us; the online industry is too young to have robust legal protections. Instead, we should limit discussions, posts, and pictures of children and be careful not to discuss their activities, location, or schedules. We must take any and all steps possible to prevent predators, whether in the form of corporations or individuals, from doing anything that could interfere with their bright futures.